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Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948)

by Josef Pieper

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970415,566 (4.07)3
One of the most important philosophy titles published in the twentieth century, Joseph Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture is more significant, even more crucial than it was when it first appeared fifty years ago. Pieper shows that Greeks understood and valued leisure, as did the medieval Europeans. He points out that religion can be born only in leisure. Leisure that allows time for the contemplation of the nature of God. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture. He maintains that our bourgeois world of total labor has vanquished leisure, and issues a startling warning: Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our cultureCand ourselves. These astonishing essays contradict all our pragmatic and puritanical conceptions about labor and leisure; Joseph Pieper demolishes the twentieth-century cult of Awork as he predicts its destructive consequences.… (more)

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Showing 4 of 4
An excellent example of conservative critical thinking--shows both its strengths (genuine willingness to attack both sides of the Cold War era; close attention to lived experience; no knee-jerk rejection of the past) and its weaknesses (unwilling to take the final step and reject that which causes the phenomena it so wonderfully criticizes).

The problem with Pieper argument should have been clear to him: you cannot say that leisure is identical with worship; and that 'worship is either something 'given'... or it does not exist at all,'; and that 'no one need expect a genuine religious worship... to arise on purely human foundations,'; and then argue that the decline in leisure is lamentable. If it's not up to us, we can't lament it. The alternative, of course, is that the decline in leisure/worship is caused by very humanly founded things like economic demands, and that the best way to encourage worship is to make worship an actual intellectual possibility for people. Aristotle was right, the good life requires leisure/worship. Aristotle meant that the only people who could 'worship' were 'free' of economic necessity. Conclusion: increase the number of people free of economic necessity, and you'll make worship more possible for more people. That's pretty easy to do. Pieper doesn't mention the possibility, because of that fear of human foundations.

The greatest intellectual shame of the twentieth century, and continuing into this one, is that people like Pieper never read people like Marcuse (and so never thought 'oh, hey, perhaps we can get what we want with a stronger social welfare state!', and that people who read Marcuse never read people like Pieper (and so never thought 'oh, hey! Perhaps just bonking everyone isn't the solution to our problems!'). If they could have corrected each other, we might have avoided a few potholes on our road to liberation/sanctification. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
This book is A Lot. It's basically a Christian philosopher arguing for the value of Tao, that is, work-transcending leisure.

The upshot is that Josef Pieper warns us of turning all our life into work, which would be Bad. Two caveats: The "us" he is trying to convice are influential Germans after the war, who are undertaking the rebuilding of society. In the most part this work served to argue strongly in favour of keeping Sundays special. And: Pieper is a German Catholic philosopher from a Jesuitic tradition. That's not a bad thing (and at least the Jesuitic tradition makes sure his work is readable and entertainingly spirited), but it influences the presentation and backdrop.

If you're going to read this book, I hope you don't like Kant (or are really secure in your attraction), because it opens with a wonderful thrashing of Kantian values, especially his tendency to only accept actions as virtuous if they are no fun. Virtue is no fun and philosophy has to be work to ✨count✨. Pieper (who is at least adjacent to neo-scholastic tradition) counters with a medieval distinction between *ratio* (abstract, focused, logical) and *intellectus* (effortless intellectual intuition). It's the basis of two different perceptions of humans: Kant assumes we suck, so we need to work against our nature to become good. Aquin (and with him, Pieper) assumes that we're pretty alright, and we just need to work to find the good versions of our impulses.

Then he goes into a disturbing trend: Increasingly, everything including intellectual effort is labeled as "work", whereas before the difference between work and not-work followed pretty much the border between the *artes liberales* – art, culture, music, philosophy etc – and the *artes serviles* - mechanical arts, manual labour, architecture, anything tied directly to a purpose. In his opinion, this comes with a cataclysmic cost. If everything turns into work, then

- there's always a demand that you could (and therefore, should) work right now.
- every action is under scrutiny to be useful, productive, functional.
- you will be bound by a latent anxiety to be productive.
- because humans still look for meaning everywhere, people will try to infuse their regular labour with deep meaning. And if you look at the presentation of working culture, that's definitely happening! "Why do you want to work here?" - "To pay the bills.", said nobody.
- you can't have any philosophy, no academia, no deep introspection for its own sake, because those are not work, don't exist to serve a purpose (even though, of course, they help and improve things as a consequence).
- you will be tempted to perform the motions of deeper actions, but as long as you do them to some *purpose*, you fundamentally misuse them. Meditation can calm you down and improve your life and your performance in many ways, but if you meditate to become more productive, you are not meditating.
- you will try to get breathing room by taking breaks, but no matter if a break is ten minutes or five weeks long, it's still a **break from work**, and so only exists within the framework of work, and won't help you on a fundamental level.

Those are good points and they have aged very very well, I think. It's especially interesting to mix these considerations with the discussions around emotional labour, and how that isn't generally seen as worthwhile or even real.

As somewhat of a side note, he introduces the word **acedia**, which was a fundamental sin before being abandoned in favour of sloth. Acedia is the feeling of numbness and despair, of desparately not wanting to be yourself, of being out of touch with who you are and what matters to you, of feeling restless. It's a common feeling in the reals of depression and burnout and has been described in detail by early Christians (think desert fathers).

As a solution, he argues that you need true leisure. He basically writes a love song to leisure, similar to 1 Cor 13 in style and content. True leisure will serve to truly transcend work, to break away from the concept. True leisure, he says, is effortless, an attitude of non-activity, of being calm and letting things happen. Of being receptive and contemplative instead of searching things out. Of being cheerful and trusting and open. Of having a light touch, a loose grip, of being in touch and tune with yourself and the world around you. It serves **not to improve yourself and your productivity so that you can be a better worker, but to allow you to stay human.**

The purest form of this, in his opinion, is not prayer or meditation or something otherworldly like that: It's celebrations, feasts, parties. Anything that joins people in a shared positive purpose. (Here, the fact that humans need more than just breaks in between work segues into a short "and therefore god exists", but if that's not your kind of thing, it's pretty easy to ignore.)

All in all: I don't agree with everything it says (actually, I disagree with half of it easily), but I disagree in interesting ways that made me think a lot about culture and work and spirituality. ( )
  _rixx_ | May 24, 2020 |
This is worth the read for anyone interested in the relationship between the emerging sense of the culture of Total Work - where everything is measure by its productivity and the concept of leisure - not as indolence but rather a reverence for pursuing a muse-like interest. ( )
  johnverdon | Dec 11, 2018 |
This book is actually two monographs. The first, from which the book's title is taken, laments the distinction made in modern (circa 1947 post-war Germany) between work that is "useful" and philosophy which is "useless". Pieper argues that the distinction is false: philosophizing (the subject of the next essay) is an essential part of human nature. Leisure is not snowboarding in the Rockies or yachting in the Caribbean. It is taking the time to contemplate Things As They Are. So what is philosophizing? Stepping out beyond the workaday world to contemplate "wonder". Pieper also asserts that eliminating religion cuts out the basis of culture or philosophizing. Not that religion/theology are the same or that it must be a Christian (Catholic) belief. But lack of belief in God empties out philosophy.



It is important to understand that Pieper stands in part in the tradition of the Romantic German Idealists. At least, epistemologically. Much of his argumentation is intuitive, and his discussion of "spirit" reminds me of Hegel. I find myself agreeing with many, if not most, of his definitions and assertions, but I find any grounds for such beliefs to be left as an exercise for the reader, or perhaps he considers these assertions to be self-evident from within. I would contrast Pieper with C. S. Lewis, who always searches for the grounds and justification for holding any belief, theologically, philosophically, or even matters of fact.
2 vote KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
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One of the most important philosophy titles published in the twentieth century, Joseph Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture is more significant, even more crucial than it was when it first appeared fifty years ago. Pieper shows that Greeks understood and valued leisure, as did the medieval Europeans. He points out that religion can be born only in leisure. Leisure that allows time for the contemplation of the nature of God. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture. He maintains that our bourgeois world of total labor has vanquished leisure, and issues a startling warning: Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our cultureCand ourselves. These astonishing essays contradict all our pragmatic and puritanical conceptions about labor and leisure; Joseph Pieper demolishes the twentieth-century cult of Awork as he predicts its destructive consequences.

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